Remembering the Day It Snowed at Disney World

December 23, 2022, 12:32 PM · The temperature in Central Florida today is dropping faster than a train cresting the lift hill on Iron Gwazi. Overnight lows might dip below freezing, as the arctic storm that's been blasting America wraps its frosty trip across the country with a visit to Walt Disney World.

There's no precipitation in the forecast, however, so it looks like "snoap" will be the only thing falling from the sky this chilly Christmas in the Orlando area. But those of us with long memories might recall that it has snowed (okay, flurried) at Disney World before.

And I was there.

So, in solidarity with those guests and cast members bracing themselves for the cold this weekend, I offer this chapter from my Stories From a Theme Park Insider book - The Day That It Snowed at Walt Disney World.

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Even in December, the weather in Central Florida remains pleasant on most days. But once a decade or so, a nasty cold front penetrates the state, freezing orange trees, tourists and even residents.

The morning of December 23, 1989 brought one of those fronts. With the forecast calling for temperatures to fall into the 30s, I hauled my Chicago winter coat from the back of the hall closet. Good that I did, too. Watching other opening-shift cast members shiver in their jean jackets and sweatshirts while I stayed toasty warm, I was glad that I had dressed as someone should for near-freezing temperatures – despite the fact that I now lived in Florida, where the weather wasn't supposed to do this.

That day I was opening at Tom Sawyer Island, driving rafts across the river. We didn't expect much of a crowd. It was Saturday, two days before Christmas. Most people coming down for the holidays would be traveling that day, making it a busy day at the airport, but not at Walt Disney World. (Certainly no local would be fool enough to come out in this weather, either.)

A freeze doesn't come to Central Florida the way it arrives up north, with weeks-long gradual cooling into the 30s and 20s, leaves turning, and warmth slowly escaping the ground. Instead, Arctic air blows sharply into Florida, shrouding the still-warm waters and soil.

What happens when you drop a blanket of Yankee winter air on top of warm Florida water?

You get fog. Lots and lots of dense fog.

Actually, the morning's fog wasn't too bad when I arrived. I drove over the crew who worked the snack stand on the island without hassle. No, I couldn't see all the way across Frontierland to the Country Bear Jamboree from the middle of the river, like I could on a clear day, but I could see from the dock on one bank to the other, which was all I really needed.

So we opened the island to a small cluster of shivering guests, stuffed into the winter coats they hadn't expected to be wearing in Florida. Everyone wore their shoulders around their ears that morning.

Then the temperature kept dropping, down through the 30s, on its way to what would be the day's low: in the mid-20s. The fog thickened. As I docked the raft on the mainland side after my second or third crossing, I heard the riverboat's whistle. I turned to signal the riverboat clear... and couldn't see it. Nor could I see across the river to the island dock.

Lake Buena Vista, we've got a problem.

My lead called a supervisor to let him know we were going down, and we learned that we weren't the only ones making the same call. Big Thunder Mountain couldn't open at all, since the ride's trains kept speeding over the frozen track. The fog enveloping Tom Sawyer Island had also covered the Seven Seas Lagoon, taking down the ferryboats and forcing all guests to access the Magic Kingdom via monorail. The Jungle Cruise was down, too. As was People Mover, Dumbo and just about every other outdoor ride in the park.

But we still had about a dozen guests on the island. The riverboat would have to dock while I ferried over a security guard to help the rest of the Tom Sawyer Island crew clear the island. Frankly, the guests seemed happy to go. Half of them already had gathered on the dock for the return trip. The rest we found huddled in one of the caves, trying to stay warm.

No one stepped up to relieve me of raft-driving duties. (Gee, I wonder why?) So I sailed blind through the muck on that final trip back to the mainland. Cocky raft drivers say that they can make the trip blind. I got to prove it.

When we arrived, two of my friends from other attractions were waiting for me. With half the rides in the park closed, leads were releasing any cast members who wanted to leave early. Rather than spend the day shivering at the entrance to the Tom Sawyer Island queue, just to let people know that they couldn't visit an island they could no longer see, I took an early release, too.

We decided we'd go play in the park – but somewhere indoors. We chose The Land pavilion at Epcot, which, we would later discover, had become the most popular destination in all of Walt Disney World that day, with crowds thicker than the fog.

On my way over to the tunnels to change clothes and clock out, I felt something fly into my eye. A bug? I blinked instinctually, and my brought my hand to my eye to wipe away whatever it was. Then I felt the offending speck melt to water instead. No way! Standing in the middle of Frontierland, I looked to the sky and saw... snowflakes.

It was snowing... at Walt Disney World.

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Happy holidays to everyone in Florida - and across the country and around the world. If you would like to read more of my stories about working at the Walt Disney World Resort, and support my efforts with Theme Park Insider, please treat yourself to a post-Christmas present by buying a copy of Stories From a Theme Park Insider. And thank you to everyone who already has, especially to those who have left positive reviews, too.

Replies (3)

December 25, 2022 at 10:15 AM

Wow. Quite a story Robert. The part that got my attention was when you could not see Riverboat through the thick fog. In my mind, that would be one of those "uh-oh" moments you feel in the pit of your stomach.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

p.s. Even though I don't post often, I read your column almost daily. Even introduced it to a fellow enthusiast at Busch Tampa last week (on birthday trip with 13 year old grandson). Iron Gwazi - OMG !!

December 25, 2022 at 2:07 PM

I remember January 1992, my family had been living in Jacksonville about six months and decided to take our first "Florida resident deals" weekend trip to WDW. In 40s and being from Chicago, not much for us but thrown by folks in winter gear with hats.

Still recall on Jungle Cruise and skipper perfect dry delivery "welcome to the hot....steamy...sweaty...oppressive jungle." Also there in March 1993 when massive winter storm hitting the entire East Coast so water rides not so fun.

December 26, 2022 at 10:07 AM

great story Robert! i moved down to orlando about 2 1/2 weeks later.

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